Albrecht Durer and the Man of Sorrows

Albrecht Dürer was born in 1471 to a successful family, the head of whom was a goldsmith. When he was 15, Dürer began studying with Michael Wolgemut, a German printmaker. It was under his tutelage that Dürer shaped into a Northern Renaissance master. By the age of 30, Dürer had already begun work on or completed some of his most famed works (The Apocalypse, Passion Cycle, and Life of the Virgin).

Dürer had the fortune of living through the exciting first decade of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation “officially” began in 1517 when Martin Luther, by then a professor and prolific writer, challenged the officials of Whittenberg Abbey to a debate by famously publicly posting his 95 Theses.  With this, and other writings, Luther and his rapidly growing supporters caused quite a stir in Renaissance Europe. Luther was eventually kidnapped and held captive at Wartberg Castle. (Actually, held safely at the castle by a princely protector; however, the circumstances are more complicated than I lead on in these small sentences. Such are the essentials.) News spread that the great professor had died, and when Dürer found out about this sad death, he exclaimed: “O God, to think of what he might be able to write for us in another ten or twenty years!”1

Durer, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, 1493

Let us briefly turn our attention to the Man of Sorrows motif, which Dürer used at least twice in his career. The Man of Sorrows is a sacred iconographical motif that was especially popular in Northern Europe. It is based on 13th century Byzantine icons, Imago Pietatis (Christ of Pity), which depict Christ with the wounds of the Crucifixion, half-naked, with a downcast expression. The textual basis for the Man of Sorrows comes from Isaiah 53:3. It is quoted below in the broader context of Isaiah 53:1-5 in the Douay Rheims translation (the first completed Catholic English Bible, dating to 1582. The version below is from 1899.)

Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? And he shall grow up as a tender plant before him, and as a root out of a thirsty ground: there is no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him: Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity: and his look was as it were hidden and despised, whereupon we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.

As you can tell by the text, the Man of Sorrows is a harrowing account of mankind’s rejection of Christ, who forsook him during his Passion (suffering ) and failed to heed him based on his countenance, which was not appealing or mighty. The conclusion is that Christ suffered for mankind’s sin, and by this, he healed them. This is a very intimate, saddening text for a Catholic (or newly Protestant) believer. When seeing the Man of Sorrows in a devotional artwork before them, pious viewers are called to remember this text from Isaiah and that they personally participate in this rejection of Christ through their sins. The hope offered to them is that by the wounds of the Crucifixion, which are always prominently displayed in the motif, the faithful are healed of their iniquity.

Dürer, Self Portrait at 28 wearing a fur collar, 1500.

I wonder why a famed Catholic artist, whose sympathies to the Protestant movement became more than just sympathies by the time of his death2, would draw himself as The Man of Sorrows – sacred iconography based on sacred text –  as he did in 1522? Could his drawing be attributed to a study for a later painting of the same subject, as one might do before he begins painting? Not in this case. Dürer did indeed paint The Man of Sorrows – but years earlier, in 1493-4. The theme was a popular devotional item, so it is understandable that at some point in his career, Dürer would end up painting it. What is unusual about Dürer’s work for this time is the number of self-portraits he created. The earliest one we have to date was done when he was just 13, with silverpoint. He continued to paint himself throughout his career. He is an easily recognizable figure, with long, curly locks and an oft intense gaze.

Durer, Self Portrait as the Man of Sorrows, c. 1493

To the left is Dürer’s Self Portrait as the Man of Sorrows. Many aspects of this self-portrait seem rather ‘normal,’ and it isn’t immediately recognizable as the Man of Sorrows motif. The face is quite obviously Dürer’s: we see his curly hair, his gaze, his unique nose and defined lips. I personally don’t think Dürer’s expression is one of pain or sorrow, as it would be in the Man of Sorrows theme – rather, he seems inwardly preoccupied with something irritating. Dürer was aging (he died in 1528) and here, it seems he drew his own sagging body.

Appearances aside, the fascinating part of the image, for me, lies in its inception. It is no doubt unusual (to put it mildly) to depict oneself as Christ, as a deity, as the suffering Savior of mankind. It’s one thing to relate to Christ’s sufferings personally by placing oneself alongside the Crucifixion, Descent from the Cross, or Entombment, as so many artists before and since have done for themselves and/or their patrons. It’s another thing entirely to represent oneself as Christ. I don’t have a solution to this puzzling drawing, only questions. Even if this drawing was a study for Dürer’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows, and one or both of these works are dated wrong, it is still a startling representation. Did anyone see the drawing? How did they react? Why did Dürer choose to draw himself as Christ, especially as a believer? Was the act of drawing it a personal act of devotion for Dürer?

Dürer, Self Portrait as the Man of Sorrows (detail), 1522.

I certainly don’t know the answers to any of these questions and I am by no means a Dürer scholar. The five year old in me who asks “Why? Why? Why?” all the time wants answers, though. If you happen to have a theory, feel free to share it!

Sources: I always put sources in the Entry Bibliography page. They are at the end of this essay because I want to give readers some immediate sources to refer to.

1 Martin Marty, Martin Luther: A Life. 2004.
2 Craig Harbison, Dürer and the Reformation: The Problem of the Re-dating of the St. Philip Engraving, Art Bulletin, Vol. 5 No. 3, 1976.